There's no getting around it—Caddie Woodlawn is a lovable little girl. She's an 11-year-old redhead who prefers running wild with her brothers Tom and Warren to housework and ladylike pursuits with her mother and sisters. Caddie's tomboyish ways are defended by her father, who knows she'll put them aside someday and grow up, but that forcing her to do so would be disastrous.
Living on the Wisconsin frontier in the 1860s, the Woodlawns are far from the chaos of the Civil War but have plenty of their own joys and fears to keep them occupied. Carol Ryrie Brink's novel, based on the childhood of her own grandmother, is a series of vignettes that cover just about every angle of the pioneer experience, including Indian scares, prairie fires, and plowing.
John Woodlawn is a peasant refugee from England, and Harriet Woodlawn is a society girl from Boston, but together they raise their family of seven children through the difficulties and triumphs of farm life. We see the parents firm in discipline yet gracious and loving at all times, fine role models of industry and kindness, against the backdrop of an awakening America.
In the most riveting section of the book, a local Native American tribe is rumored to be on the war path, and it's Caddie's bravery and trust that ultimately avert tragedy. Time and again, her pluck and levelheadedness turn potentially bad situations into positive experiences for everyone concerned.
Other adventures include losing the family dog to an irresponsible uncle, buying gifts for three poor children, falling through ice, sending Valentines, fixing a circuit-rider's watch, playing tricks on city-girl cousin Annabelle, and more. Over the course of the book, Caddie becomes more and more mature and selfless, and Brink does a good job showing rather than telling this change.
Most children will enjoy the depictions of frontier life, the adventure, and the gentle humor. There's really nothing objectionable here, unless you have a problem with the fact that Caddie cares for Indian John's scalp belt. As a story of family, it ranks among the best with its depiction of healthy parent-child relations (though Harriet Woodlawn can be extremely annoying).
Caddie Woodlawnisn't at its best as a frontier novel, however. While there's plenty of excitement, Brink often seems to leave out details that would pique readers's interest, focusing instead on the feelings and thoughts of Caddie. (Perhaps it's unfair to compare any frontier story to theLittle Housebooks, but we do miss Laura Ingalls Wilder's lists and detail.)
Still, the fact that Brink doesn't tell us exactly how plowing works (for instance) is trumped by the wonderful ideal she offers of a happy-yet-imperfect family. Healthy families are sadly rare in literature, including children's literature, and whatever its deficiencies may be,Caddie Woodlawnis one of the better family stories we've read.
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